The North Korean government has repeatedly shown its willingness to impose extreme deprivation on its people. The probability that coordinated, wholesale reductions in food aid will lead to improved conditions, policy reform, or regime change remains both uncertain and well below 100 percent.
It is also important to emphasize that the violation of humanitarian norms, the flaws in the aid program, and the problem of diversion do not mean that aid is without positive elects. Aid has had beneficial effects both directly, by increasing overall supply and moderating prices, and indirectly, by encouraging commercialization and the growth of markets.
The highest estimates of diversion that we have seen—fully 50 percent going to less-deserving groups or the military—still leave 50 percent of food going to meet the needs of vulnerable groups.
Most important, the argument for cutting food aid rests on a highly dubious utilitarian logic: that it is morally acceptable to sacrifice the innocent today in the uncertain probability that lives will be saved or improved at some future point. This type of argument flies directly in the face of the fundamental rights that the international community is trying to uphold.
Although we oppose cutting of food aid, we agree with the critics that the international community must make a concerted and coordinated effort to wean North Korea of humanitarian assistance. This would involve outlining and negotiating a path of reduced aid—subject to reversal in the face of natural disasters—that would point toward self-sufficiency, defined as the capacity to import adequate external supplies on commercial terms.
[Excerpts from "Famine in North Korea", a book by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland]